Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Through his hard work, Thorfinn has almost earned his freedom from Ketil's farm, along with his friend Einar. Einar is excited, but Thorfinn has his reservations – after all, freedom is only as good as what you do with it, and he's still conflicted after his years of war. But it turns out that the choice may be taken from him, as King Canute, returned to Denmark from England, has his eye on Ketil's lands as a way to strengthen his hold on his kingdom. War may be coming to Thorfinn whether he wants it or not – if not in the form of Canute's men, then in the shape of an escaped and violent slave in search of his wife.
Everyone, we like to think, wants to be free. That is true for the most part – why would someone rather labor under duress, be it in literal or figurative slavery, when they could be living their lives by their own rules? But freedom is frightening, and if you've lived under someone's rule for long enough, the idea of not having that person to tell you what to do can be alarmingly vast. That's what's going on for Thorfinn in the sixth omnibus of Makoto Yukimura's historical epic Vinland Saga. He and his friend/partner Einar have almost finished with the work conditions set for them by their owner, Ketil, and he tells them that once they till the field they have cleared, they will be set free. Einar is thrilled, but Thorfinn is more reserved. He's become comfortable working on Ketil's farm, having something to do that keeps the monsters of war at bay, and now the idea that he might have to leave is unsettling. After all, the only life he lived for many years was one of bloody revenge, fighting for his chance to avenge his father. Ultimately that revenge left him an empty husk, and a piece of him knows that he risks falling back to that place if left on his own.
It's an interesting concept, and one that Yukimura has kept returning to over the course of this arc of the story: what is the cost of violence? For Thorfinn it is fear and regret as he carries the ghosts of the men he killed with him. He can silence them during the day while he's working, but at night they torment him in a hellish mockery of Valhalla. Though he doesn't say it aloud, we get the impression that he fears that with freedom will come the ghosts, able to torment him during the day as well as he looks for a place to belong. This is paralleled in the story of Canute, once the beautiful prince thought too soft to rule. In the years since Thorfinn's enslavement, Canute has become hardened, and when he assumes the throne of Denmark after his brother Harald's death, we see that this has not been without cost. Arguably, Canute has been free since his father's death, but what he has done with his freedom is what Thorfinn fears he will regress into: Canute has waged wars, including a subtle one on his own brother in order to consolidate his hold on the crown. Like Thorfinn Canute is haunted; in his case, it is his father's disembodied head that follows him around. Canute can see Sweyn everywhere, and at all times of the day, making a case for Thorfinn's fears even though he doesn't know it. Canute has learned the opposite lesson of Thorfinn – for him, war and death are the only ways to go.
Yukimura does not shy away from the everyday cruelties of the Viking world, although this volume is much less graphically gruesome than the previous story arc. The violence being more spread out over the four hundred pages makes it more shocking – when Ketil's son Olmar allows himself to be tricked into starting a brawl as an excuse for Canute to claim Ketil's lands, his older brother Thorgil puts a stop to the plot with an impressive display of swordsmanship that leaves the attackers in pieces on the bloody ground, turning the tides in gory style. Likewise when, back on the farm, Arnheid's husband escapes from his owner and comes for his wife the violence is sudden and grim, showing just how quickly Thorfinn's world can be drenched in blood once again. Thorfinn is shaken by this fact, and we can suddenly see why it is that he worries about his freedom and that a world without bloodshed will never be possible. Of course, this is where the title of the saga begins to come into play. “Vinland” refers to the North American continent, and when Thorfinn talks of wanting to find a place where war cannot come for him, we can guess that this is where he'll find it. Leif Ericsson makes a reappearance in this volume in a small but very important way, so presumably we're approaching the point where setting off for Vinland becomes more than just a title for the series.
Yukimura's research and dedication to detail shine through as always in this volume, from crowd scenes that are like a big “Where's Waldo?” game to small details like the way a helmet fits. There is a dramatic difference in the pacing between the Canute and the Thorfinn sections, which can make reading a little jerky, and occasionally the “runic” font Kodansha uses can make it a little difficult to tell what letter is which, but on the whole this is a well-researched, fascinating page turner. Yukimura's end of the volume funnies are particularly good at the end of the first part, and his thoughts on violence in shounen manga make for interesting reading, helping to inform how we interpret Vinland Saga itself as well as pointing out something almost too obvious to notice in the Shounen Jump formula.
Vinland Saga is a history buff's dream in its details and the perfect solution for those tired of stories about plucky teens. It isn't always paced as well as it could be, but it has a lot to say as it tells a fascinating story. This sixth volume maintains the quality of the overall series as it begins to get into the meat of where Yukimura seems to want to be.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : A
+ Richly detailed in both art and story, interesting parallels to Macbeth in Canute's storyline. Makes you think without taking away from the story or getting preachy.
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